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'Fair contest in the air, it shouldn’t have been a penalty'

By Liam Heagney
England U20s Junior Kpoku (left) and Olamide Sodeke at full-time (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

England age-grade boss Mark Mapletoft was left unhappy that his U20s were dramatically held to a 32-all draw by Ireland at The Rec on Friday night. The English looked to have won it late on, Ben Waghorn seeing his 77th-minute try brilliantly converted from the touchline by Sean Kerr for a seven-point advantage.

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However, there was still one final twist, Ireland hitting back to score through Luke Murphy with 82:13 on the clock and Sean Naughton’s conversion left a nine-try thriller deadlocked at the finish.

What grated with Mapletoft was the penalty in the air awarded by referee Reuben Keane against Finn Carnduff, which handed the Irish a lifeline that not only had consequences on the result in Bath but it also left the age-grade title race delicately poised.

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England are still on top of the table by a point from Ireland but they have the way tougher closing round fixture in having to visit France in Pau next Friday while the Irish host bottom side Scotland in Cork.

After the 12,627 attendance had headed off in the Bath night, Mapletoft convened pitchside with RugbyPass and he quickly ran through his emotion following a gripping game that was a fantastic advert for the entertainment that international rugby at U20s provides.

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“Roller coaster of emotions,” he began. “More so for the lads than a lot of us who are older and have been around the block for a little while. Started well, then were poor for far too long, particularly in that first half. Great resilience second half but we kept bringing them back into the game.

“To then go seven up with the best part of two minutes to go, one play effectively: Look, I’m not one for commenting on how difficult decisions are in the heat of the moment but there was absolutely nothing wrong with the contest in the air.

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“Finn goes up, video evidence is clear and obvious. I don’t need to go on about it. And ultimately you have got a dressing room full of gutted players and a dressing room full of semi-delighted players who managed to get out of jail.

“Quite fundamentally it was a fair contest in the air and it shouldn’t have been a penalty. Those things sometimes go for you and sometimes don’t, but proud of the players in terms of how they stuck at it in the second half when we probably hadn’t really hit our straps.”

It was the second time in succession that an England-Ireland U20s fixture had finished in a high-scoring draw as nine months ago they ended tied at 34-all in Paarl at the World Junior Championship

“Richie (Murphy, the Ireland coach) and I were talking about it at the end. You couldn’t write it given how close it was in the World Cup. We were knocking on their line back in June and weren’t able to get over and they were able to this time.

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“The biggest lesson we will take from it is we started really fast and then did we think this is going to be like the other games? We should know better than that. Ireland are a class outfit. They went to France and won the first game up. Teams that do that are good sides. That will be a big lesson for us and we will be stronger for it.

“I thought Sean (Kerr) did well, if nothing other than clutch kick from the sidelines to put seven in because ultimately that was the difference between drawing and losing the game. We have worked through a lot of adversity in the four games. Players pulling out, not necessarily getting the combination of players we want.

“But unbelievable credit, the bench made a big impact coming on which is what you want. You want to make sure you get the most out of them and they get the most out of themselves. We’re all disappointed about results but this is a development programme and I am sure the lads will learn massively from this.

“We have got to get straight back on it. We have got a great challenge out in France. I’d imagine most of their players will be up from the Top 14. We have got to dust ourselves down. Some guys who put in good performances have got to build on that, and guys who perhaps were a little bit below where they would like to have been.

“That’s the whole challenge, being able to go week to week in these tournaments. It’s going to be a much tighter turnaround in the World Cup. We need to make sure we get our recovery, our preparation right and get over to Pau and do our best.”

Set to spend his Saturday evening at Twickenham watching England host Ireland in the Guinness Six Nations, Mapletoft signed off referencing his delight with the recent growth in the popularity of the U20s.

He added that the presence of Chandler Cunningham-South in the Test match day 23 just months after playing age-grade was evidence that it’s not a million miles away from the first-team scene.

“Incredible really. Coming off covid where there was a lull for two or three years, the media guys, certainly at our end, have done an unbelievable of promoting the programme. I always read News Now picking up on press stuff in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They recognise it has to be the breeding ground for the next group of players.

“From our perspective seeing Chandler push up so quickly, the lads realise it’s pretty close – if they can play well they can push themselves in that first team. Even Chandler probably hasn’t played regularly for Harlequins but it shows it’s not a million miles away for them.”

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Tom 96 days ago

The opinion of a totally unbiased person who just happens to be the coach!!

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